It was a bittersweet opening ceremony for those (most of the world I suspect) hoping and expecting to see


Nelson Mandela open the World Cup. Mandela missed the ceremony due to the death of a great-granddaughter, aged 13, in a car accident on the way home from the celebratory opening event Thursday night. Current South African president Jacob Zuma opened the tournament instead.

Despite that unwelcome sad news, the atmosphere in Soccer City in Soweto was extraordinary. But only the Mexicans seemed ready to play once the ball kicked off, nearly scoring in the 2nd minute and not letting the hosts have any possession the first five minutes.

Later, the Mexicans had the ball in the net off a corner kick, only for it to be disallowed for offside. The ESPN commentary team of Martin Tyler and Efan Ekoku initially claimed that was a bad call, but replays showed it was a correct decision in an unusual circumstance: Khune, the talented South African keeper, had come out to the six yard box, from whence the ball was flicked on by Mexico, meaning that the defender remaining on the goal line was the last man back. The rule says the attacking player must be behind the next-to-last defender (regardless of position).

Khune later had to make a save from point blank and overall South Africa had to be relieved not to trail by one or even two goals at halftime.

The second half was a completely different story. The game and tournament kicked into high gear with a memorable opening goal from Katlego Mphela, who was played in down the left-side on a counter attack, and with not too much of an angle to shoot at and not too much time to shoot, blasted a remarkable left-footed shot into the far corner.
You can’t strike a ball better than that (and most of us will never a strike a ball that well even once!)

Lifted by the crowd, South Africa lifted its game and were clearly on top the next 10-15 minutes, going for the kill, which almost but did not quite come. The game became much more open as Mexico searched for an equalizer, with Khune forced into a spectacular save at his top near post off the foot of Gio Dos Santos. The leveler finally came through a defensive error by veteran defender Aaron Mokoena. Mokoena failed to join his teammates in an offside trap, leaving three Mexican players onside within 12 yards of the goal. Rafael Marquez of Barcelona took advantage with a great trap and cool finish from 6 yards, knotting the game at 1 with just over 10 minutes to go.

To their credit, neither team tried to close up shop at that point, with each continuing to search for a winner. South Africa came closest as Mphela again got in behind the defense in the 89th minute, but his left footed shot hit the near post and rolled out.

Overall a fair result and a very promising footballing start to the tournament. I’ve read at least one World Cup 2010 preview (“World Cup 2010” by Steven and Harrison Stark) that predicted a dull tournament. Not on this evidence. We’ll have to see what Uruguay and France can produce in today’s second game. If you’re a Bafana Bafana partisan, you probably want France to win, but if (like me) you want both South Africa AND Mexico to advance, you’re pulling for a draw.

Thad Williamson is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and, has followed European soccer extensively for more than a decade. He grew up playing Rainbow Soccer in Chapel Hill and maintains a blog on Manchester City Football Club. Thad is a volunteer/assistant coach with the Richmond Rebels, a team of homeless and formerly homeless men that will be participating in the Street Soccer USA Cup in Washington later this summer.